A Fish out of Water
Ponyo is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and stars the voices of Tomoko Yamaguchi, Kazushige Nagashima, Yūki Amami, George Tokoro, Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Rumi Hiiragi, Akiko Yano, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tomoko Naraoka. The English dub stars the voices of Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, and Betty White.
The track record of Studio Ghibli suggests that the studio is quite adept with crafting children's films, ones that treat children with the utmost respect and believe that imagination and curiosity know no bounds in the mind of a child. And while the vast majority of American children's films sadly don't share this belief, it does warm the heart to know that the good people of Studio Ghibli will always be a bright light in the dark pit of misery that sometimes is the world of children's films. The magnificent charm of Ghibli children's films such as My Neighbor Totoro and the film we'll be talking about here, Ponyo, reinforce the rather unpopular opinion that children's films should be held to the highest standard in film-making and not the lowest.
The inspiration for Ponyo came from Miyazaki's interest in The Little Mermaid from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, which we all might know as being the inspiration for Disney's The Little Mermaid. Both Ponyo and The Little Mermaid rely on traditional hand-drawn cel animation, though I would argue that Ponyo's animation is softer and bouncier, with textures that are as child-friendly as any texture in animation. Some characters like Ponyo and the various sea creatures that we see are animated like squishy toys that we could poke and stretch with playful glee, which is not exactly what we would think of if we could physically interact with Ariel and Ursula. But anyway, the point being that Miyazaki allowed himself the freedom to draw the sea and the waves, a freedom reminiscent of the freedom a young child enjoys while drawing with markers, crayons, etc. Not that Miyazaki was trying to act like a child while drawing, but rather, in order to help Ponyo come to life as a children's film, Miyazaki approached the animation with a type of flexibility that allowed him to be put in the right sort of creative and imaginative mindset, one that a child can have when given enough freedom.
So, who exactly is Ponyo? Ponyo is one of many daughters of Fujimoto (George Tokoro/Liam Neeson), a human magician/scientist who lives underwater. Ponyo's birth name is actually Brunhilde, but that all changes when she decides to sneaks away and ends up on the shore of a small fishing town. A young boy named Sosuke (Hiroki Doi/Frankie Jonas) finds Brunhilde, believing her to be a goldfish. Sosuke gives her the name Ponyo and promises to take care of her. However, Fujimoto finds Ponyo and takes her back underwater with him. Ponyo begins to refuse to be referred to by her birth name, while also declaring her desire to become human. Ponyo is able to escape and use her father's magic to become human, eventually making her way back to Sosuke. Ponyo joins Sosuke and his mother, Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi/Tina Fey), at their home. However, Ponyo inadvertently uses too much magic while escaping, causing a tsunami in Sosuke's fishing town and the natural world to become imbalanced.
- The gentleness of Ponyo and the fact that it's fully respecting its target audience makes it a very sweet-natured film that is bound to warm hearts of all ages. Absolutely nothing about this film is pretentious or cynical in any conceivable way, offering a fantasy world that, while not the most original idea you'll ever see, is one that welcomes you with open arms and is perfectly suitable for the soft, squishy animation that Miyazaki and company concoct. The animation for the water differs from the animation for dry land, which is much more sturdy and in place. Miyazaki, however, is able to magically blend these two animation textures together like peanut butter and jelly, and the film is that much more of a visual delight because so.
- I will always advocate for a notable soundtrack in a movie, and a notable soundtrack is what we get here from composer Joe Hisaishi. There may not be a memorable theme song, but Hisaishi's score is constantly humming throughout the film, enough to make its presence known and not sound like generic background noise.
- The only real problem with Ponyo is that it plays things a little too safe, so much so that there's no true antagonist and no true conflict. The natural world becoming imbalanced is the closest thing we get to a conflict, but the movie never creates any real stakes to make us fear for any of the characters and believe that any of them are in danger. Ponyo may be a children's film, but it doesn't have to be shy about the topics of death and suffering when appropriate. Disney's been showing us death and suffering for decades, and they turned out alright.
So while it's far from Miyazaki's best film, Ponyo is a splash of gentle sweetness and visual wonder. It's a gem of a children's film and one that people of all ages can thoroughly enjoy, a luxury that Ponyo has over far too many other children's films, particularly those released in America. There are similarities to Disney's The Little Mermaid, but because Ponyo is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, I think there's enough to distinguish the two films and thus not seem like you'd be watching the same movie if you watched The Little Mermaid and then Ponyo back to back. I won't say which one that I personally think is better; they're both great films in their own ways. In the case of Ponyo, it's another fine example of the masterful ways of Studio Ghibli and the talents of Hayao Miyazaki, neither of which have ever disappointed.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: